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Blogging is “destroying the business model for quality”?

Journalist Jonathan Rauch writes that the internet is Sturgeon squared:

This is the blogosphere. I’m not getting paid to be here. I’m here to get incredibly famous (in my case, even more incredibly famous) so that I can get paid somewhere else. . . .

The average quality of newspapers and (published) novels is far, far better than the average quality of blog posts (and–ugh!–comments). This is because people pay for newspapers and novels. What distinguishes newspapers and novels is how much does not get published in them, because people won’t pay for it. Payment is a filter, and a pretty good one. Imperfect, of course. But pointing out the defects of the old model is merely changing the subject if the new model is worse. . . .

Yes, the new model is bringing a lot of new content into being. But most of it is bad. And it’s displacing a lot of better content, by destroying the business model for quality. Even in the information economy, there’s no free lunch. . . .

Yes, there’s good stuff out there. But when you find a medium in which 99 percent, or whatever, of what’s produced is bad, there is a problem with the medium. . . .

I believe there are inherent problems with the blogosphere as a medium. Lack of a payment model militates against professionalism and rewards noisiness . . .

In terms of the environment and the incentives it creates, the blogosphere, I submit, is the single worst medium for sustained, and therefore grown-up, reading and writing and argumentation ever invented.

Regular (or irregular) readers won’t be surprised that I disagree. I do, however, understand Rauch’s frustration: after painstakingly establishing a reputation writing books and working for newspapers and magazines, he’s reduced to posting on Andrew Sullivan’s blog. He writes that his “mild, moderate, think-it-through-and-get-it-right style doesn’t mesh well with blogosphere culture.” I wonder if his problem is that he’s aiming for too big an audience. We have something like 5000 subscribers here. Maybe if Rauch were willing to settle for an audience of 5000 rather than millions, he could be mild, moderate, think things through, and get it right. To be all these things and have a huge audience? I think that takes a huge amount of luck. It happened with John Updike, and Francis Fukayama, and Tyler Cowen, and . . . not so many others. But if you’re willing to accept a niche audience, you can be as serious as you want.

But that’s me coming from my academic perspective. So few people read most academic articles that I’m thrilled to have 5000 readers for my musings. Rauch is coming from the opposite direction, writing for newspapers and magazines where hundreds of thousands of people are exposed to every word in print. To give up on those large audiences has got to feel like a step backward.

Feelings of frustration

Rauch writes that journalists like himself are “the kind of people who punched their tickets on newspaper police beats where they learned quaint notions of fairness and accuracy and keeping one’s opinions out of it and all that.” Given that Rauch is currently posting nothing but opinions and has stated that he will do no reporting on his blog, and given that I haven’t seen any police reporting from him lately, I think it’s safe to say that he doesn’t actually view fairness, accuracy, and the traditions of the police beat as valuable in themselves but rather as some sort of hazing that you had to do in the old days before you could get to the fun stage of opinionating. So I can feel his frustration that bloggers today feel free to express their opinions in public–just like Rauch, but they never had to do all that police-beat stuff first. Rauch had to eat his spinach but these dudes get to skip right to the dessert. Talk about violating “quaint notions of fairness”!

Life is like that. Just when you finally become an expert on something, your expertise becomes obsolete. You spend a couple decades getting good grades and becoming really good at taking tests, then suddenly you never need to take a test again. You master the skills of diaper-changing, then all of a sudden your kids are walking around wearing real underwear and you have no place to apply your talents. You’re Derek Jeter and you get to be really really good at hitting, throwing, and catching, and then before you know it, it’s time to retire. And so on.

Rauch is in a difficult position, I think, in that his particular journalistic niche includes a lot that people are happy do for free. His most recent book, “Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America,” is the sort of thing you might very well see on a blog.

Academic publishing

Rauch writes that blogging, and the internet in general, is “displacing a lot of better content, by destroying the business model for quality.” What really struck me about this remark was how different things are in academic publishing. Nobody pays us to write journal articles: we do it for free and we always have. We get paid to teach and to do research. Publications can indirectly make us money–if I publish an important article, it can help me get a research grant–but no part of this system requires the readers of my work to pay for it. If every journal were to become free and online overnight, everything could proceed just as before. The argument that paid writing is better than free writing just doesn’t apply in my world.

Rauch makes an offhand remark that he uses the internet to “do Wikipedia research.” I’m assuming here that he doesn’t mean that he does research to post on Wikipedia but rather that, to him, going on Wikipedia is a way to do research. And that’s fine, there’s no shame in using secondary sources, but somebody has to actually write those Wikipedia articles? And they’re doing it for free! It’s not so coherent to describe Wikipedia-reading as “research” and then turn around and disparage the quality of free writing on the internet.

Blogging as a style: the words come out in time order rather than in an order dictated by the logic of the piece, as would occur in a well-edited magazine article

Rauch states that in his blogging there will be “no second drafts.” That describes the blogging here. I almost never redraft a blog entry. But sometimes I do spend a couple hours thinking through what I’m trying to say, while I’m writing it. Rauch may very well be correct that this is not the best way to write.

My blog entries typically have a linear, story-like flavor, starting with “So-and-so sent me a question one day…” or “I was websurfing one day and came across an article on…” or even a bald “So-and-so writes that…”, then flowing through my immediate reactions, through my more considered thoughts, on to my conclusions.

A finished magazine article is a palimpsest (I hope I’m using the term correctly) of thoughts, rearranged to form a logical order. In contrast, my blog entries follow the internal logic of my thoughts. In many ways I like the result, but I agree with Rauch’s (implicit) statement that a blog is not so friendly to the reader who is used to reading magazine articles that are structured, Gladwell-style, around personal anecdotes. (And I mean “Gladwell-style” in a good way.)

To put it another way, blogging is the ideal medium for someone such as myself whose writing is too fluid for academic journals but is not quite up to the standard of professional magazine writing. Conversely, if like Rauch you’ve trained yourself to write in that professional style, it must be frustrating to suddenly enter a world in which people can get wide internet readership without ever having developed that skill. I have no idea if that Instapundit dude knows the difference between a subject and a predicate or whether he can string together more than two sentences without an embedded url–but he has more readers than Rauch and I will ever get.

Finally, there is the question of value. I’m lucky enough to have a well-paying job that gives me a lot of time to work on whatever I want. This isn’t always such a good thing for a writer (consider the later careers of J. D. Salinger and Joseph Mitchell, both of whom I suspect would’ve benefited from some deadline pressure), but it works for me. Rauch keeps mentioning how he isn’t being paid. I like writing for free but he doesn’t. This doesn’t make me a better person than Rauch, just luckier. I’m blogging cos I want to, Rauch is blogging even though he’d rather be doing something else. (Or maybe I’m the more pitiful creature because I actually want to blog, but that’s a call for someone else to make.)

Still, much as I like to blog, I do feel a bit of frustration when I write a long and thoughtful piece that appears only here (and maybe on one or two of my sister blogs). Even this entry here–the product of a couple of quick thoughts in response to something I noticed on the Daily Dish–I have to admit I like it enough that I’d like to see it (or a revised version, maybe combined with other related thoughts) in a more widely-read publication. It doesn’t feel quite real if it only appears on a blog.

Summary

Take away the rhetoric and the personal stories, and we’re left with Rauch’s central claim, which is that blogging is “destroying the business model for quality.” If readers will read blogs that are written by amateurs for free, then professional journalists will disappear.

16 Comments

  1. Ryan says:

    Ah, but you are paid to publish and blog! That you’re not paid by the word or by the article is irrelevant.

    The broad terms of my – and presumably your – academic appointment include scholarly works and service to the community/public. There’s no precise guidelines to what kind and how many scholarly works I am expected to produce, but I am paid my salary on the assumption that I will be publishing _something_. Similarly, there are no strict rules on what is expected in terms of service to the public, and I wouldn’t be penalized if I didn’t do much of anything, but the university administration is certainly supportive of any public outreach I might do that doesn’t make the university look bad. And blogging would certainly fall into that category.

    If you were writing a blog on some subject completely unrelated to your day job (say, model trains), then I would buy the argument that you’re not being paid to blog. But as it is, you mostly write on topics that are completely intertwined with your professional life and, I’m assuming, even think about or write some blog material in your university office.

  2. sarang says:

    It seems like a quasi-defensible position to say (e.g.) that the hard work is not just a hazing ritual but makes you a better opinionator. (Obvious counterexample: Kristof.) The amorphousness of blog entries is a bit of a negative but this is the flip side of blogging as an unpaid activity. More generally I think one could argue that the problem with the internet — blogosphere or not — is that both you and your employer have a much better sense of what posts/articles are widely read and liked, which is arguably bad because the average reader (arguably) has crappier tastes than even the average Murdochian editor, and that too much responsiveness to readers is bad for the quality of papers. (If one is primarily interested in getting paid, there is also the issue of the declining value of online media as status/seriousness markers. I’m not sure how far this was ever true but presumably at least some fraction of subscribers to dull respectable papers got them so that they could leave them lying around. Which was fine for the reporters as circulation figures are all that really matter economically. There isn’t really a good equivalent to this online.)

  3. Wayne says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with you, Andrew. Rauch sounds a lot like the complainers in the publishing world when desktop publishing broke their (financially-based) stranglehold. True, most desktop-published documents have been atrocious, but there are many benefits, and it’s no longer true that “Freedom of the press applies only to those who own a press.”

    Similarly, the desktop video revolution has lowered barriers for entry to the video field (which is currently my primary source of income). Is Youtube comparable to a major studio, network, or cable channel? No. But you no longer need to have enormously expensive video equipment and expertise to make videos, which is overall a good thing.

    Rauch learned objectivity in his previous occupation, and only that elite corps can be objective? (Many of us non-elites have our doubts about editorial objectivity, even in flagship, paid publications, but that’s another matter.) Even if we accept that Rauch has a point, that doesn’t really change the equation. Just as most people who publish documents do not design or make them as well as an experienced typesetter. In some sense, we’ve lost the art of typesetting — I can’t stand Microsoft-Word-created technical documents, as compared to LaTex-created documents — but that’s not too a high price to pay for the benefits we get.

    So ultimately, Rauch’s remarks are a remake of the same play, with a few names and places changed.

    You mention scholarly papers. There’s still a blockade on those. ArXiV, and other sites are a good first step, but you really cannot do research without an institutional sugar daddy who pays for access to paid technical journals. Who could afford to research when it’s $25-65 per paper and you purchase based on references and an abstract?

  4. Tom says:

    I find the point a little odd for a few of reasons: a) just because you pay for a newspaper does not guarantee journalistic quality – you just have to look at what is happening with tabloids in the UK at present to see that. b) what is wrong with a new business model? – there are any number of business models that have been overturned by technology, and the response is surely to get a better one – horse cavalry might have been put out business by machine guns, but the response was to invent armoured vehicles, not shout about how unfair it all was (maybe a few historical inaccuracies…). c) the definition of quality is very subjective – just how do you measure the ‘average quality’ of a newspaper?

  5. The underlying business model is still the same: a writer attracts readers whose attention is sold to advertisers.

    One difference is that we can now pretty easily cut traditional publishers (capital and marketing) and their production (printing), distribution (trucking) and retail (newsstands) out of the loop.

    This makes it easy to run a not-for-monetary-profit blog like this one. I suppose Andrew could’ve had a mimeographed newsletter in the old days, but who’d have paid for postage or the work study to stuff envelopes?

    We can also cut editors out of the loop, but they’re the one part of the traditional food chain, along with copy editors, that seems to offer at least some value.

    Another big difference with the e-publishing biz is that the reader no longer has to pay for the privilege of having their attention turned into a product.

    The question I have is how long the traditional academic publishers are going to last. We’ve been contributing content and the editorial process for free all along.

  6. LemmusLemmus says:

    Part of the reason I read blogs is that the quality is simply higher than what the “quality” papers offer. Would I rather learn about a longitudinal study of child development from a blogger who understands behavioural genetics and causal analysis or some Guardian scribe who has no clue whatsoever, but makes sure to include quotes from Labour and Tory politicians? Decisions, decisions!

    Rauch’s claim that about 99% of the blogging out there is crap is probably something I could agree with if I took a random sample, but as long as you can reliably find good stuff and keep out the trash – and you can – I see no problem in this at all.

  7. Igor says:

    Andrew,

    Mr. Rauch must quite literally be joking.

    “I believe there are inherent problems with the blogosphere as a medium. Lack of a payment model militates against professionalism and rewards noisiness . . .”

    Quite a few readers of this blog might be baffled that in this day and age a very serious person think that a payment model in the media would obviously militate for professionalism and exclude noisiness, … especially in the U.S.

  8. (a) What Ryan said, and

    (b) Have you looked at any magazines, newspapers, or books recently? Even your albedo posts are better than most things on sale at Narnes & Boble.

  9. Dan says:

    Ryan’s comment is interesting in that while the blog’s author might be paid to serve the “community/public” I am not sure that whoever foots the bill thought about servicing the entire planet. Including myself (and I presume others) in Australia. Granted, often I don’t quite understand what Gelman is on about, but I feel that it’s something quite smart, potentially useful and I like the way it’s written. This particular entry is not only easy to understand (and relate to), but is something that should be more widely read than by the usual 5000 Bayesian devotees. I will tweet it and perhaps add a reader or two. ;)

  10. Ted Hart says:

    I have to agree with your perspective on academic blogging. I’ve been working on an blog about my field, ecology (http://currentecology.blogspot.com) and I’ve found it very rewarding. While it doesnt truly help my career, as a postdoc it helps me get my name out there and make connections with the community of connected scientists. I think there are other filters than money though, especially when you blog as an academic and need some advanced degree for someone to take you seriously. I think if I was just a guy selling hotdogs I’d have fewer doors open for me as a blogger. I think that in then larger blog world perhaps different rules do apply, but it is not the case that crap floats to the top of the blogosphere and that cream in the print sphere. Take blogs like the oatmeal or hyperbole and a half or stuff white people like. All great blogs that rose to the top and now two for them are books. At the same time how on earthier are Glen Beck and Bristol Palin allowed to publish books? Personally I love that my academic heroes blog and I get some insight into their raw thinking process. So I would also have to disagree about blogs low quality medium.

  11. Andres says:

    Very cool post. Thanks!

  12. Dave Backus @ NYU says:

    I think blogging is great, I’m exposed to a much wider range of ideas than I would be otherwise, and I’d argue much of it is higher quality than before. But on the economics, this sentence nails it: “I wonder if his problem is that he’s aiming for too big an audience.”

    Posner made an interesting argument some time ago: as the cost of distribution channels fell, we got more variety, with each channel more focused on a specific audience. Compare network TV in the 60s to cable TV today. Here’s his piece:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/31/books/review/31POSNER.html

  13. idiot says:

    I dislike blogs and comments (hence why I still call myself “idiot” when I comment on some blogs), but I do understand that they have their time and use, so I sympathize with Rauch’s plight (and will possibly read his blog). But I think I could shed light on why you would see blogging as not “feel[ing] quite real”. It’s because anybody can open a blog. Anybody can sign onto WordPress, type up some words, fake some credentials, and have their own blog. And if everybody can do it, then why would anybody do it? There is no prestige or value in this business then…it’s not special, unique or exotic.

    Granted, blogs will compete over traffic, and there are going to be lots of low-quality blogs with little traffic…but that reinforces my point. Only a few blogs will have a lot of traffic, and as a result, they are considered special and unique and thus worthy of prestige and value…but blogs, due to their democratization nature, is considered crass.

    Luckily, this is a problem that can be fixed. If we want to make blogging respectable and feel real, maybe we just need to add certain qualifications that a blogger must meet before he can become a blogger. Similar to that of how you have to get a Doctorate before you can hired for certain teaching jobs.

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  16. Kaleberg says:

    To be honest, journalism has been in a long slide downhill since the 70s. You can blame blogs or USA Today or happy talk news on cable channels, but that’s a simple fact. A well written news article or piece of analysis in a magazine or newspaper was a rarity by the 80s. Dig up an issue of Fortune from the 30s or 50s and compare it with one from the same magazine in the 70s or 90s or today. Just compare the use of figures. At some point authors stopped assuming that readers could understand a balance sheet or a budget. Look for back of the envelope checks on various expert estimates. Look for historical perspective. A modern journalist who understands his or her field and is allowed to report it in an expert manner is an oddity in print, but common online.

    Some bloggers blog for fun. That’s why I blog. I like where I live, local hikes, dining and so on, so I write about them. My friends and a few strangers read my posts and are for the most part amused. A surprising number fo bloggers also write books, sometimes as outgrowths of their blogs. Sometimes they recycle and improve their free offerings and sell them. Other times they may develop some ideas on their blog and use them in their more serious writing. An awful lot of them simply use them to communicate with their readers and the reading community. Yeah, a lot of bloggers are academics, or are computer people, or have grandchildren. That usually means that they have some area of expertise, and it’s nice to see that kind of person writing again.